It was the early '60s, and the annual ritual of the pledge was still commonplace in Catholic churches, although in a few years it would disappear along with much else of the ironclad Catholic manner that flourished before the Second Vatican Council. But now, the pledge is back, or rather a new one designed for a new millennium. This one emphasizes family discussion of entertainment choices and content instead of a promise to stay away from particular films. On December 16, pledge cards for "Renewing the Mind of the Media Pledge Campaign 2000" will be distributed in Catholic churches. The cards will suggest various options for promoting more responsible and moral media.
The old Legion of Decency pledge originated during the early 1930s, and it was a real period piece: "I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country, and religion.... Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality."
In retrospect, such language sounds simultaneously oppressive, benighted, and embarrassing. In the context of the time, however, taking the Legion of Decency pledge was akin to taking a pledge today to care for the environment or to combat racism. The old pledge rested on strong moral convictions already in place.
Hollywood has always been different from normal people, and in the Roaring Twenties, just before the Legion of Decency came into being, Hollywood was differenter than ever. Then, as now, the studios noticed that sex and violence were the best box office insurance. It was a cynical era, replete with gritty, realistic movies that bared the ample skin of the era's quite ample girls. Mae West, drawling double entendres and strutting her overstuffed figure, was the last straw.
In 1933, the Legion of Decency was joined by Protestant and Jewish groups in a massive film boycott intended to communicate what mere protest had not. This effort was successful: Hollywood turned to more upbeat, family-friendly fare, to Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, and the Marx Brothers, and was astonished to see audiences turn out enthusiastically. Miss West's 1934 film "It Ain't No Sin" was hastily retitled "I'm No Angel." Some suggested that she would have fared best with the objecting public by just calling the movie "It Is a Sin."
The pendulum swings, and by the early '60s there was growing impatience with smarmy, unrealistic '50s media culture and a greater tolerance for challenging films that treated dark and complex moral themes. The Legion of Decency first softened its pledge, then discarded it altogether. The pledge's requirements were no doubt observed less faithfully than they once were. Although my family stood and recited our pledge year after year, I don't remember its affecting any moviegoing decision in our home.
Now, the pendulum may be swinging back--but can a pendulum swing in a divided culture? While some have been complaining about increasing sex and violence in movies for at least a decade, others have indignantly insisted that cinematic art must remain unfettered. There is no consensus in sight, and as in the 1920s, Hollywood prefers to walk the edge of scandal, deeming such a strategy more profitable for moviemakers and more bracingly therapeutic for viewers.
But many people of faith disagree with this assessment, and Catholics are among them. In the new pledge, they will be asked to make 10 promises, many of which involve seeking positive alternatives to current violence and sex-laden media offerings. Time saved from watching TV can be given to prayer; money saved from renting videos can be given to the poor.
Sophisticated people may greet the new pledge with reflexive skepticism; it seems to hint of mind control, of coercive tactics and censorship. But another reading of the "Renewing the Mind of the Media" material shows the reverse. Catholics are being urged to do more thinking than they usually do about media. They're encouraged to consider what they partake of and why, and to sharpen their critical faculties. They're exhorted to contact media outlets and explain what they approved or disapproved and to actively discuss entertainment products with neighbors and friends. Media consumption is too often passive and flabby; the new pledge represents a call to mental and spiritual calisthenics.
But there's another level of uneasiness with such church-based efforts to address entertainment media. It's mildly disorienting, like seeing your third-grade teacher in the grocery store. It just seems wrong. Church is church, and fun is fun, and they shouldn't get mixed up together.
Columnist Terry Mattingly calls this "the separation of church and life." The instinctive feeling is that church things belong in a special compartment, along with God and morality and all that nice stuff we visit so solemnly once a week. The rest of life is, well, real; it's where we do what we have to do in order to get through one more day. It's the stuff God wouldn't understand. For a church to meddle there--that seems intrusive and strange. It's as if the church made it it's business to ask what color shirt we planned to wear next Thursday, or whether we were getting enough leafy dark green vegetables in our diet.
There's a difference, though. The entertainment media are the most influential teachers in our society. They are constantly streaming messages through our skulls, messages that are good and bad, contradictory and foolish and inspiring. We do not get messages from spinach. (If we do, something is wrong.)
The church, or any religious group, has a strong interest in the quality of the messages its members are imbibing. After all, its mission is spiritual formation. People who join any faith community have presumably come voluntarily, and presumably because they seek to grow.They come because they think the accumulated wisdom there is greater than what they could have come up with on their own. The church fulfills its part of the bargain by suggesting ways to manage and interpret the entertainment flow. It helps its members to navigate the messages that swirl around them and to evaluate them from a centered and coherent perspective. The "Renewing the Mind of the Media" pledge, after all, is not a call to boycott, censor, or condemn. It is a call to think.
I won't be taking the pledge; I'm not Catholic anymore. But it seems to me that in proposing this voluntary promise, the Catholic church is doing exactly what a church should do. Those who are dismayed by the ugliness of much so-called entertainment can vote with their pocketbooks, but they may suspect that merely avoiding such fare isn't enough. The first step toward "renewing" the media won't come by reclaiming the local Cineplex but by reclaiming our own minds.